A guard grabbed Talie and tried to wrestle the gun from her hand. With a quick elbow to the ribs and kick to the groin, she knocked the two hundred and fifty pound man to the floor.
Talie advanced on Vison’s body. She raised her weapon, firing again and again at the maximum setting. Another guard tried to stop her; she broke his nose and snapped his leg then went back to shooting Vison’s mutilated corpse. In the end, it took six guards to restrain and disarm her.
“Look at his blood!” she shouted as they pinned her to the wall.
Zane glanced at Vison’s smoldering remains. Flesh and clothing had burned away, leaving charred tissue and bone. Blood had splattered everywhere. It dripped off the walls. It stained Earth’s flags. It pooled on the floor. It took Zane a moment to realize it hadn’t vaporized. It remained liquid crimson with flecks of silver.
“He was infected!” Zane said, watching as the blood began creeping across the carpet.
“Get a sterilization team!” a guard shouted.
Zane examined his hand, waiting for the veins to darken and chills to run up his arm. Nothing happened. He felt no trace of the infection.
“They don’t want you,” Talie said. “You already did what they needed you to do.”
“His skin… he looked normal,” Zane said.
“You can hide a lot with makeup,” Talie replied.
Vison’s fingers twitched. His chest rose as, with a wheezing sound, he sucked in a lungful of air. His right eye opened and turned to stare at Zane. Vison laughed. It was a wet, gurgling noise but unmistakable as laughter.
“Stand clear!” an officer yelled. A squad of soldiers rushed in followed by two technicians and their equipment. One of the guards hastened Zane into the corridor.
Talie was waiting, forgotten in the commotion. This time she did not cry, did not tremble, did not beg for Zane to listen. This time Zane shook with fear. Zane fought to control his emotions. Zane struggled to understand what had happened, and Talie regarded him without compassion or respect.
Behind him, Zane heard the buzzing sterilization beam and Vison’s shrieking agony.
“We did some investigative reporting,” Talie said. “Turns out the Swarm owns Chronovision. They’ll create it several thousand years from now after they master the secrets of time travel.
“You see, during the nineteen year war that was supposed to happen, human scientists would have studied the Swarm in unprecedented detail. They’d discover certain vulnerabilities which would allow for the creation of a computer virus. Imagine that: a weapon to deactivate the Swarm without collateral damage. Why, that could wipe them out all across the galaxy!
“Thanks to you, none of that will happen. You have fifty years before their next wave arrives, but the knowledge you need to defeat them has been erased from history. Unless you plan to sterilize Earth all over again, and again thirty years after that, and again after that.”
Vison’s screaming faded away. The buzzing persisted, interrupted only by occasional shouts from the soldiers and technicians.
“You have one hope,” Talie said. “When they make you emperor, build up Earth’s military. Attack the Swarm in their own territory. Keep the fighting as far from home as possible. And send scientists to the front lines; maybe they’ll develop that computer virus after all.”
“I’m not going to be emperor,” Zane said. “I won’t let the Republic…”
“You want to change history AGAIN?” Talie shouted.
Zane flinched. For a moment, Talie’s rage seemed more than human. Her perfectly manicured nails looked sharp enough to slice open a man’s throat; her voice echoed like the booming words of God; her eyes flashed with blinding, violet light as though some other world resided inside her head, a world pulsing with energy and hate.
“I… I don’t…” Zane said, stumbling away from her.
“Mr. Secretary,” an officer said, emerging from the conference room. “Some of the nanobots escaped into the micro-circuitry. We’ll have to sterilize the whole deck. If that doesn’t stop them, we’ll have to abandon ship.”
Zane watched Talie. She calmed herself. Her eyes returned to normal, and she took a long, deep breath. A cruel smile formed on her lips.
“You’re a lucky man, Mr. Secretary,” she said. “You get to choose which future you want. Be sure you make the right choice.”
Talie pulled out her watch, clicked the button, and disappeared.
* * *
Emperor Zane the First stood on a landing platform overlooking the ruins of Gibraltar. Over a week had passed since the Swarm destroyed the E.S.S. Atlas.
A shuttle arrived, settling on the platform. After a few minutes, its airlock opened, and its two passengers disembarked.
“Daddy!” Chloe yelled. She raced toward her father, her long dress flapping behind her, her poor Teddy-saurus dangling by the neck from her tightly clenched hand. To her, there were no soldiers armed with plasma rifles, no press corps snapping pictures, no gunships patrolling the sky, and the man she ran to wasn’t an emperor or war hero or traitor to the Republic–he was just Daddy.
Zane knelt and caught her in his arms. She hugged him with all her strength, and he smiled. He hadn’t smiled since Talie first appeared in his office. Smiling almost hurt now, as though the muscles of his face had atrophied from disuse.
Zane’s wife followed, her eyes deep with sorrow.
“Are you okay?” she said.
“No,” Zane answered.
Lexi nodded and reached for his free hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.
One of the soldiers barked a command, and four lines of guards marched forward to escort the Emperor and his family to a waiting air-car.
As Zane walked, carrying his daughter in his arms, he caught a glimpse of bright, blonde hair. Talie stood somewhere among the rest of the media. Zane didn’t look at her. He’d already redeployed the Space Force, strengthening the boarders of his new Empire and preparing for the next Swarm attack. He’d ordered new ship construction and drafted more scientists into the military. He didn’t want to see Talie’s smile of encouragement or frown of disapproval. He didn’t want to know what she thought of his decisions. He didn’t want any hints about Earth’s future or his own.